Dealing with the Dark Side in the Ethnography of Childhood: Child Punishment in Tonga

By Kapavalu, Helen | Oceania, June 1993 | Go to article overview

Dealing with the Dark Side in the Ethnography of Childhood: Child Punishment in Tonga


Kapavalu, Helen, Oceania


System. In N. Scheper-Hughes, (ed.), Child Survival: Anthropological Perspectives on the Treatment and Maltreatment of Children, pp. 359-376. Dordrecht: D. Reidel.

KADUSHIN, A. and J. MARTIN. 1981. Child Abuse: an Interactional Event. New York: Columbia University Press.

KAVAPALU, H. 1991a. Becoming Tongan: an Ethnography of Childhood in the Kingdom of Tonga. PhD Thesis, Australian National University.

-----, 1991b. Power and Personhood in Tonga. Paper presented to When the anthropologists Ernest and Pearl Beaglehole went to Tonga in 1938, they were greatly disturbed by the frequent child-beating that they witnessed during their two-month stay in the village of Pangai. Ernest Beaglehole wrote in his field journal, 'It is rare for us not to hear from our house the agonised crying of some child or youngster being reproved by an older contemporary or relative' (1938-9: Dec 27).(1) Commenting that he would never use physical punishment on his own children, Ernest Beaglehole recorded his impressions of Tongan discipline:

The Tongan mother has not the slightest hesitation in herself picking up a stick or coconut switch and beating her child with a thwarted fury that seems nine parts pure sadism and one-quarter part altruistic-disciplinary. To us, as we watch the scene, these child beatings seem to exceed all that is reasonable and just. But the mother flails with her stick screaming and ranting all the time. The child wilts under the blows with a pathetic mixture of agony and fortitude. Then it wanders off, sobbing and groaning, with who knows what thoughts of hate and revenge . . . The repressed aggressiveness that is aroused by these adult whippings seems to find an outlet in the equally sadistic beating that goes on in the children's groups' (ibid.: Jan 12).

Beaglehole clearly regarded this harsh punishment as abusive, and thought that the 'bullying and terrorism' experienced in childhood 'must be important factors in the formation and development of the typical Tongan adult personality' (ibid.: Dec 27).(2) In a subsequent article, Beaglehole suggested that the severe punishment of children and 'the necessities of adjusting to the rather strict morality of the average Tongan home' resulted in 'psychic stress' (1940: 47).

In the Beagleholes' monograph, Pangai, a village in Tonga (1941a), the observations in the field journal are transformed into a two-page account of 'growing up', part of a longer description of 'the life cycle'. The emotive tone of the journal is replaced by a cool functionalism:

The child who disobeys or who is thought to be lazy in carrying out a command is generally severely beaten by the mother. The beatings. . . appear to be village-practice in enforcing discipline (ibid.: 82)

The Beagleholes acknowledged that they made 'no systematic study . . . of the life of children' in Tonga (1941a: 82) and, indeed, their monograph attempts to cover all aspects of village life. My own work has focused on the ethnography of Tongan childhood, and, like the Beagleholes, I found physical punishment to be a central feature of socialisation.(3) When I read Ernest Beaglehole's journal, after my own fieldwork, I immediately identified with his distress at witnessing frequent beatings. Since my research was concerned with all aspects of child socialisation it was necessary for me to confront this practice, and attempt to discern the complexities that were beyond the scope of the Beagleholes' study. Examining the issue of physical punishment in Tonga led me to a more general consideration of how to deal, both ethnographically and personally, with socialisation practices that are negatively valued in my own cultural milieu.(4)

Socialisation is a complex process in Tonga, as elsewhere, and despite its centrality physical punishment is only one aspect of this process (see Kavapalu 1991a). The narrow focus of this paper precludes any consideration of what might be called 'the bright side' of Tongan childhood, such as the high social value of children, and the 'warm love ('ofa mafana) that characterises relationships within the extended family. …

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